An invaluable record of the early days of American sailing ships
Coggeshall, the author of this work, is both well known and highly regarded by those interested in chronicles of the great days of sail during the early nineteenth century. Coggeshall's two volume work of his voyages as a crewman and officer of American schooners and his experiences with the navy of the United States are vital reading and are published by Leonaur in hard and soft cover editions. This book concerns the American privateers—a subject the author knew well by close personal experience. Coggeshall commanded two letters-of-marque during the War of 1812—David Porter and Leo. In this history he has attempted to embrace the fortunes of every ship, crew and commander and to describe the many battles at sea and the taking of 'prizes' that typified this engrossing conflict between the emergent American nation and the British.
“I commanded the American brig Betsey, in the year 1812, and was returning home from Naples, Italy, to Boston. When near the western edge of the Grand Bank of Newfoundland, on the 10th of August, 1812, I fell in with the British frigate Guerriere, Captain Dacres, and was captured by him. Myself and a boy were taken on board of the frigate; the remainder of my officers and men were left in the Betsey, and sent into Halifax, N. S., as a prize to the Guerriere.<br>
“On the 19th of the same month, when in latitude 41° 41’ North, longitude about 55° 40’ West, the wind being fresh from the northward, the Guerriere was under double-reefed topsails during all the forenoon of this day. At two p. m., we discovered a large sail to windward, bearing about North from us. We soon made her out to be a frigate. She was steering off from the wind, with her head to the south-west, evidently with the intention of cutting us off as soon as possible. Signals were soon made by the Guerriere, but as they were not answered, the conclusion of course was, that she was either a French or an American frigate.<br>
“Captain Dacres appeared anxious to ascertain her character, and after looking at her for that purpose, handed me his spy-glass, requesting me to give him my opinion of the stranger. I soon saw from the peculiarity of her sails, and from her general appearance, that she was, without doubt, an American frigate, and communicated the same to Captain Dacres. He immediately replied, that he thought she came down too boldly for an American, but soon after added: ‘The better he behaves, the more honour we shall gain by taking him.’<br>
“The two ships were rapidly approaching each other, when the Guerriere backed her main-topsail, and waited for her opponent to come down, and commence the action. He then set an English flag at each mast-head, beat to quarters, and made ready for the fight. When the strange frigate came down to within two or three miles distance, he hauled upon the wind, took in all his light sails, reefed his topsails, and deliberately prepared for action. It was now about five o’clock in the afternoon, when he filled away and ran down for the Guerriere. At this moment, Captain Dacres politely said to me: ‘Captain Orne, as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen, you are at liberty to go below the water-line.’<br>
“It was not long after this before I retired from the quarter-deck to the cock-pit; of course I saw no more of the action until the firing ceased, but I heard and felt much of its effects; for soon after I left the deck, the firing commenced on board the Guerriere, and was kept up almost constantly until about six o’clock, when I heard a tremendous explosion from the opposing frigate. The effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerriere reel, and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake. Immediately after this, I heard a tremendous crash on deck, and was told the mizzen-mast was shot away. In a few moments afterward, the cock-pit was filled with wounded men.<br>
“At about half-past six o’clock in the evening, after the firing had ceased, I went on deck, and there beheld a scene which it would be difficult to describe: all the Guerriere’s masts were shot away, and as she had no sails to steady her, she lay rolling like a log in the trough of the sea. Many of the men were employed in throwing the dead overboard. The decks were covered with blood, and had the appearance of a butcher’s slaughterhouse; the gun tackles were not made fast, and several of the guns got loose, and were surging to and fro from one side to the other.<br>
“Some of the petty officers and seamen, after the action, got liquor, and were intoxicated; and what with the groans of the wounded, the noise and confusion of the enraged survivors on board of the ill-fated ship, rendered the whole scene a perfect hell.”<br>
After having related Captain Orne’s statement of the battle, I will now proceed to give Captain Hull’s account of the action, with a few additional incidents and remarks, which the gallant Commodore was too modest to insert in his official report. He wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, that on the 19th of August, 1812, being in latitude 41° 41’ North, longitude 55° 48’ West, at two p.m., a sail was discovered from the mast-head, bearing from him E.S.E., but at so great a distance he could not tell what she was. All sail was however immediately made in chase, and he soon found he gained upon her; at three p. m. could plainly see that she was a ship under easy sail, standing close upon the wind on the starboard tack; at half-past three made her out to be a frigate.<br>
He continued the chase until within about three miles distance to windward of the enemy. Captain Hull then hauled to the wind, and deliberately took in all his light sails, and prepared for action; he also took a second reef in his topsails, as the wind was blowing fresh from the northward; he then sent down royal-yards, hauled up his courses, cleared ship, and beat to quarters. At this time the chase lay with her main-topsail aback, evidently waiting for the American frigate to come down to commence the action.<br>
At five p.m. the Guerriere hoisted an English ensign at each mast-head, when the Constitution set her colours, bore up and ran to leeward in order to close in with the enemy to the best advantage. As the Constitution neared the Guerriere, say when within long-gun shot, the latter ship opened her fire, wearing and yawing about to rake and prevent being raked. The first two broadsides fired from the Englishman, however, were at so great a distance that little or no damage was received by the American frigate.<br>
Up to this time, Captain Hull had reserved his fire, all his guns being double-shotted, that is to say with one round shot and a canister of grape. At six in the evening, the English frigate bore up, and ran off the wind under her three topsails and jib, with the wind on the quarter, to invite his adversary to a combat at close quarters. Immediately after this, say at a quarter after six, the Constitution set her main-top-gallant-sail and fore-sail, to range alongside and close in with the enemy.